A Korean Confucian Way of Life and Thought

The Chasongnok - Record of Self-reflection by Yi Hwang - Yi T’oegye

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Yi Hwang
Edward Y. J. Chung
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , November
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is a study and an annotated translation of Yi Hwang’s (1501-1570) Chasŏngnok  (Record of Self-Reflection). Yi Hwang, with his pen name T’oegye, was one of the most eminent Korean Neo-Confucian scholars in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Chasŏngnok is a collection of twenty-two philosophical and scholarly letters written by Yi Hwang. Edward Chung has translated this collection and provides an insightful introduction to Yi Hwang’s thought and self-cultivation practice.

Chung’s work is divided into two parts: a detailed introduction to Yi Hwang’s life and scholarship and to the essentials of Yi Hwang’s thought, and an annotated translation of the text. In the first part, Chung presents the historical, philosophical, and spiritual context of the Chasongnok (3). After providing an introduction to Yi Hwang’s life and scholarship (3-21), Chung presents the essentials of Yi Hwang’s thought, including his philosophy of principle, and his teachings on human nature and emotions, heaven’s principle, and selfish desires. Ethically and spiritually, Chung discusses Yi Hwang’s understanding of true learning, self-cultivation, reverence, and his critique of Buddhism and Daoism (21-43).

The second section of the book is a translation of Yi Hwang’s Chasŏngnok (49-146). It is a great contribution to have this text available in English, and Chung’s translation is in general reliable and highly readable. Following the translation, Chung also provides more than 400 textual comments, cross-referencing citations in the notes (147-227).

Before the publication of Chung’s work, there were two works on the study of Yi Hwang’s thought available in English: Michael Kalton’s To Become a Sage (Columbia University Press, 1988) and his Four-Seven Debate (SUNY Press, 1994). The former is a study of Yi Hwang’s best known work, The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning, which is believed to have expressed Yi Hwang’s profound teachings, including the framework of Neo-Confucian metaphysics and its philosophical and psychological theories. The latter is a study of the Four-Seven Debate, which includes letters by Yi Hwang and his correspondents arguing about the distinction of the four beginnings and seven feelings in terms of li and qi.

Chung’s study of Yi Hwang’s Chasŏngnok is very different from Kalton’s books. Though Chasŏngnok pertains to Yi Hwang’s philosophical and psychological theories, it mainly focuses on the actual practice of self-cultivation. Chung emphasizes that “it must be remembered that the Chasŏngnok  it [sic] is not a philosophy text but a practical moral-spiritual guide” (44).

Emphasis on the practice of self-cultivation leads Chung to reveal Yi Hwang’s way of reasoning, which is generally known as a “dualistic interpretation.” According to Chung, for Yi Hwang, one should have a clear understanding of the distinction between li and qi, as well as the Four Beginnings (that is, the Four Beginnings of Virtues: compassion, shame, courtesy and modesty, and the discernment of right and wrong) and Seven Emotions (pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred, and desire), because “this ultimately has a profound implication for self-cultivation” (28). Yi Hwang emphasizes the original human nature with respect to li, which is purely good, and the physical human nature in terms of qi, which is either good or evil. For him, the Four Beginnings reflect original human nature, while the seven emotions are associated with physical human nature (22-29). Yi Hwang’s understanding of the realization of principle is highly related to self-cultivation. He developed the so called “self-manifesting” principle. This principle is “to be realized through self-cultivation, without which its moral-spiritual significance would be lost” (44). Thus, If one “does not clearly distinguish li and qi, as well as the four from the seven, in an ontological and moral context, the unfortunate consequence will be to misidentify innate moral qualities manifested from heaven’s principle with the selfish ‘human cravings’ that are stimulated by ki and can easily become evil due to external influence” (28-29). Without a “dualistic interpretation,” if li and qi are the same, the self-manifesting principle is baseless, and thus the self-cultivation is impossible.

The practices of self-cultivation introduced in Chasŏngnok were related to, but different from the practices of Buddhist and Daoist spiritual cultivation. For example, the practice of single-minded concentration advocated by Yi Hwang is similar to Buddhist single-minded meditation: both begin with concentrating on one thing and both emphasize self-cultivation in daily life. However, their goals were very different: for Buddhism, the goal of practicing mediation is to achieve enlightenment, which is simply spiritual. For Yi Hwang, the practice of single-minded concentration is a moral-spiritual practice. This can be best explained by his Doctrine of Reverence. According to Chung, for Yi Hwang, “reverence is a concept that essentially differentiates Confucianism from Buddhism and Daoism” (40). On the one hand, “reverence means concentrating on one thing, which implies not deviating from it”; on the other hand, to practice reverence is “to rectify the self internally” (42). Here, Yi Hwang connects single-minded concertation to the moral practice of reverence, and places Confucian self-cultivation on a moral-spiritual level.

In conclusion, Chung’s work provides a practical guide to Neo-Confucian self-cultivation, indicating a way of moral and spiritual development. This is a significant contribution to the study of Neo-Confucianism. Chung suggests consideration of “Confucian thought as ‘spiritual humanism’ in dialogue with world philosophies and religions” (45). This book will help the uninitiated reader understand the practice of Confucian self-cultivation, while enabling the scholar to understand Yi Hwang’s thought more profoundly. The work further provides a new perspective to understand Yi Hwang’s “dualistic interpretation,” and engages with a holistic approach to Yi Hwang’s life and thoughts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lixia Dong is a Ph.D. student in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward Y. J. Chung teaches Eastern religion and thought and comparative religion at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.


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